This is Your Brain on Wordle

4:35 minutes

Hand holding phone and playing Wordle.
A person playing Wordle. Credit: Shutterstock

Five letters, six tries to guess a word. That’s the simple conceit behind Wordle, the new puzzle game that’s sweeping the internet. More than 2.5 million people play this word game, its creator told NPR. The word changes each day and is the same for everyone who plays. Each letter guessed right brings the player one step closer to solving the puzzle. It’s free and simple, and according to many players, completely addictive. 

But why is such a simple game so compelling? And how does it compare to viral games of the past, like Pokemon Go or Words with Friends? 

Ira is joined by Dr. Matthew Baldwin, assistant professor in social psychology at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida, to unlock the reasons why Wordle both satisfies the brain and brings us closer to our peers. 

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Segment Guests

Matthew Baldwin

Matthew Baldwin is an assistant professor in social psychology at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida. 

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: If you’ve been on social media at all over the last few weeks, there’s a good chance you’ve seen the new game that’s sweeping the internet, Wordle. Yeah, more than 2 and 1/2 million people play this weird puzzle game. You have six chances to guess a five-letter word.

The word is different every day and is the same for everyone who plays. Every letter you guess right brings you closer to solving the puzzle. It’s free. It’s simple. And some people say it’s totally addictive.

The question is, why is such a simple game so compelling to so many? Well, for the answer, we’re turning to psychology and my next guest, Dr. Matt Baldwin, assistant professor in social psychology, University of Florida, based in Gainesville. Welcome to Science Friday.

MATT BALDWIN: Hi there. Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. Before we really get into it, Matt, I have to ask you, are you as addicted to Wordle as many people have become?

MATT BALDWIN: I am unashamedly addicted to Wordle. Yes.

IRA FLATOW: How long did it take?

MATT BALDWIN: Probably right away. I think I saw the green and yellow boxes showing off on my Twitter feed around Christmas time. I think, from the first puzzle, I was addicted, yeah.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. Wow. So, as a social psychologist, explain this to us. What is it about this game that really appeals to us and, obviously, to you?

MATT BALDWIN: Sure. I think there’s a lot going on. But I think there’s two kind of main components to the game that I think really connect with us. On the one hand, Wordle is a shared experience, right? So we see our friends playing it. We get to share our results on social media.

And when we do this puzzle together, we’re all working toward the same goal. We’re all trying to solve the puzzle at the same time on the same day. And I think this creates a sort of common in-group goal. And it allows us to share this experience with others.

And we know, from psychology research, that shared experiences are really meaningful to us, that shared experiences are amplified. When we feel an emotion or watch a movie together, we experience those things in an amplified way. So I think, on the one hand, it’s like a group event that connects us.

On the other hand, it’s a creative, insightful, and flow like experience. There are many elements of the game that make it fun and engaging. There’s optimal levels of challenge. We get this insightful aha moment toward the end when we guess the puzzle correctly. And I think this is a very rewarding experience.

IRA FLATOW: Now, of course, there are other games that we all work together. I’m thinking of Pokemon Go, Words With Friends, even crosswords, or chess. Is there something that sets Wordle apart from those games in terms of how our brains react?

MATT BALDWIN: I think it’s because we’re all working toward the exact same thing. So the word is the same for everyone. And the number of guesses is the same for everyone. And so it is a truly shared experience. There’s not a lot of variety there.

And psychology suggests that, when we all work toward a common goal, we really coalesce around that goal. And sort of group boundaries are broken down. And we come together. And, yeah, in Pokemon, there’s a lot of variety. Even in Sudoku or Words With Friends, it’s not necessarily a common goal despite being a shared experience. So I think that’s one thing that sets Wordle apart.

IRA FLATOW: So are you saying that the sharing part, the fact that this is a social community that we have that we have not had decades before is integral to the success of this game?

MATT BALDWIN: I would say that’s one of the main components, yes. I think that, especially now when most of our lives have turned to online spaces and we’re maybe all really grasping for some kind of social cohesion, it makes sense to me that a very simple, common goal like this and the ability to sort of check your own experiences against others and get some verification that this simple little thing is really fun and everyone else thinks it’s fun, I think it’s a very welcomed experience for people right now, especially several years into the pandemic. And it has created a very cohesive, connected, social group online in a way that maybe nothing has done so far.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you, Matt, for taking time to be with us today. Fascinating ideas about Wordle.

MATT BALDWIN: I appreciate it. Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: Dr. Matt Baldwin, assistant professor in social psychology at the University of Florida based in Gainesville, Florida.

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